By Paula Damon
Today is Tuesday, May 28, 2013, the day after Memorial Day. I’m in a restaurant on Highway 20 way out West in Chadron, NE, a former railroad town surrounded by miles of grassland and high plains.
Making my way to a booth, I part waves of chatter on livestock values, plumbing fittings and the Memorial Day head count yesterday at three area cemeteries.
After plopping down and unpacking my notes and laptop, I notice an elderly couple one table over with their heads bowed – the wife is mouthing a barely audible prayer.
The husband doesn’t seem to move much, perhaps feeling buoyed by an oxygen tank hanging on him as a satchel to one side. Tubes extending from it wrap around both of his ears, travel over his sagging cheeks and disappear into his heaving nostrils.
From his pained look, I conclude the life he once knew is gone. His eyes, glazed and despondent, search for memories of a more felicitous time, when he went about freely with bravado and grit, not tied down to that darn breathing machine that’s doing its darnedest to keep him going.
After she sanctifies their little bite, she proceeds to do all the talking. While tearing open ketchup packets and squirting out enough for both of them to share, she glances out the window and tries predicting whether or not those dark clouds will really send rain or are they just bluffing. And then, after running through a list of errands, she begins fussing over what to cook for dinner.
“Lamb stew is really good the first day,” she assesses, as if his silence is a sign he’s really listening, “but warm it up in the microwave the next day and it’s not the same.” She reaches to dab a splatter of food on his chin.
I am trying not to lean too much into this snapshot of someone else’s folks whom I’m appreciating and, well, you might say, honoring, since my own parents have been gone forever, it seems. Mom died on ’05, Dad in ’07.
So I’m trying to distract myself by drafting a new story – that is until these other bits of conversations spray all about like a fountain of updates, tidbits, musings and whatnot.
At the table behind me, a group of construction workers:
“Wallpapering the walls! He was up on the ladder. In his 70s or something like that. The other one was in his 50s. He steps off, thought he was on the last step and fell. Broke his hip.”
Sitting kitty-corner from me, a collection of elderly women:
“My husband always says, ‘I can see your nipples through that blouse.’ And I say, ‘Most everybody has them, so what does it matter?’” They all chuckle.
“Well, tell him to stop looking and he won’t see ’em no more.” This sets the entire table into a fit of laughter.
From the table next door:
“Remember when the kids used to take you out to supper for a hot dog at Wal-Mart? Oh, dear!”
“I like their cheese sticks.”
“Aren’t they hot?”
“No, they’re good. And they’re cheaper than they are at Arby’s, but my husband said those potato chips they have at Arby’s are good. They make their own potato chips, you know.”
Overheard from the table directly ahead:
“That’s gratitude for you. I went out to the cemetery and there was a small bundle of flowers on Dick’s grave.”